Editing an MA thesis: Should we?

An extremely hostile, antagonistic post was posted on a yahoo list that I subscribe to, after one lister innocently asked the following:

Hi, What would be a standard per-page rate for upgrading the English of a 100-page
MA thesis in Israel? Thanks! ES

This punch-in-the-face answer from SW came by reply:

The price is the degrading of all other MA thesis – you should be ashamed of yourself. Unless you are starving it would be wrong to do it. At this level the person who authored it should have a sufficiently high level of English to do it themselves. A thesis should be the work of the author, and not reflect the work of a mercenary.

That is the problem. Both here and in the USA. People are simply paying someone to “improve” their work. The result is that people are getting jobs, and getting paid, above their ability. This floods the market with people who are not as competent as they should be. It results in some competent people with the same degrees being denied work because they didn’t cheat by having someone “help” them, because perhaps their topic wasn’t as “sexy”, or perhaps they didn’t interview quite as well (or they did but just were not as lucky).

I often see the result of this on this list. Individuals who claim to be writers or editors, but cannot write and/or edit their own work. And I have checked out some of their websites only to find them silly, unprofessional, badly worded, or something of the sort. Yet they are a writer and/or editor. Yeah, right. I would not hire them.

SO – please, unless you have a really good argument don’t respond to this e-mail. I’m tired of all the no talent, no ability wanna-be writers/editors and their opinions.

WOW! I took offense: perhaps the esteemed writer has read my posts or blog and found them … never mind. However, even worse was the fact that at the very moment I was knee-deep editing an MA thesis about computer programming. The English AND organization needed quite a bit of, shall I say, “tweaking.” Was I “doing” the work for my young author? Was I now an accomplice cheating academia? I mean, I wasn’t just adding commas and correcting to/two/too, I was doing some serious rearranging and rewording. Yikes!

My salvation came quickly enough. A TKG wrote:

As a professional writer/editor … not every academic or academic hopeful knows how to write, students are being graded less for their writing skills than they are for their research and for how they bring that research to a conclusion. …someone may be a genius in a certain field but just not have great writing skills, … it would be unethical for someone in a Creative Writing program to use an outside editor. But what if their major is in one of the sciences? Or what if someone has done amazing research to discover something new in history, or psychology, or social work? Should they be penalized that their talents do not lie in literature/writing? T.

T. also added “A little tolerance may be appropriate here,” to which SW countered:

A little tolerance? You want me to be tolerant of dishonesty? of unethical behaviour? A thesis (or dissertation) is by definition the sole work of an individual done under the supervision of someone who has more subject experience and more writing experience.

If someone is lacking in writing skills they can always teach in a public high school or a junior college where research and publication are not required. There are many jobs in almost every field which require no research and/or writing. Why should doing such a job be considered a penalty?

But then he added:

In the sciences and the social sciences co-authorship is common. Why not get the advanced degree/s and then find someone to be a co-author? Nothing wrong with that. I co-author things all the time with someone who is a genius in his field but has weak writing skills – I know the subject, but he is the expert. He has a lot of great ideas, does some great research and has more expertise than I do – nothing wrong with this. But here is the important part – our work is not an attempt to get a degree. A degree should mean something, but it means less and less all the time due to the sentiments of you and some others on this list. …

The academic should have a high level of subject knowledge and an ability to communicate it.

Really now. Somehow I think that adding his name to an academic article that he is not expert in just because he is “expert in writing skills” ? Frankly, that seems even more dishonest than staying in the background,  quietly correcting English, and not pretending to be some authority on a subject. What does that mean “I know the subject”? I know about brain surgery. I know you need scalpels and Dremel tools, and I know terms such as a cranium and  medulla oblongata (I have a B.Sc.).  But does that qualify me to co-author a treatise on brain surgery? Hmmm. I wonder.

And even more interestingly, he adds:

If English language skills are the problem there is a solution. Write in Hebrew and have it translated, or translate it yourself and hire someone to edit/translate and acknowledge the fact – but that isn’t what was being proposed. What was proposed was outright deceit

At this point i began to think that SW is totally off his rocker. It seems to me that what he  just proposed is exactly what an editor does? I mean, if a Hebrew-speaker writes in English (assuming that he is not fluent), isn’t he essentially “translating” his Hebrew thoughts into English? So SW has no problem with him (the student) having an editor fix this up. At this point I went back to the original question, and honestly couldn’t understand where the “outright deceit” was.

However, reading SW’s PS clinched my “appreciation” of his, umm,  mentality.

PS: Attention nice, tolerant, agreeable, totally sincere, civilized females of both genders – NO more snarky e-mails about making nice, being tolerant, yada, yada, yada – I have to go read the Gregalogue.

OK… I DID attend that lecture on political correctness. I think SW needs that lecture too! Now I was really offended, as other obviously were too.

First, from A:

You should be ashamed of yourself for making such arrogant and
ignorant remarks when your own writing is riddled with punctuation errors and
grammar and style issues…You seem quite angry and bitter… aren’t we all.

Here are some tidbits of the responses (they were too many and too voluminous to actually post them all):

From E: A company I was with had a large contract with one of the world’s largest legal publishers. That publisher had international experts on all areas of law, from all countries, writing books for them – in English. Many of these experts did not possess mother-tongue English skills and the books needed to be heavily edited by someone with both legal knowledge – who could understand the content – and good writing ability. This was and is considered routine practice. (The editors weren’t credited and the fact that there was editing was never mentioned in the final product.) I’m not sure I understand why a thesis should be any different.

AZ:  Firstly, let’s keep the tone of the advice requested civil and focused. After all, the request wasn’t an ethical dilemma, but rather a price quote.

I see nothing wrong with asking a professional to brush-up English usage in his thesis.

In fact, the argument that a graduate student should know proficient English and not require an editor is akin to claiming that the newspaper outlets should fire their copy editors and managerial editors. After all, shouldn’t professional writers (like us) have a “sufficiently high level of English to do it themselves?” [My emphasis.]

If you substitute “writers” for people, you could end up arguing that writers “are getting jobs, and getting paid, above their ability. This floods the market with writers who are not as competent as they should be.” And, of course other writers “are being denied work because they didn’t ‘cheat’ having someone ‘help’ them…”

What’s so wrong for a native Israeli who wants to make sure that his ideas are properly conveyed?


From IK: … professors who want to publish in English. Why should they, or their students, be penalized because English is not their native tongue? From my experience, I would venture to say that scholarship around the world would be better off with a little more editing in English.

One poster told about a friend in the UK who has a kind of “on-line” thesis coaching business:

A friend  helps foreign students in online tutorials to write their PHd… over 9 months to a year. He helps them to understand … English is faulty, … structure their thesis. These are usually students who have English as a second …language, especially … structural difference between their languages and European languages. …He feels this is perfectly acceptable. On the other hand he would not rewrite a term paper for some rich kid who couldn’t be bothered to do it on their own, which he would see rightly as cheating.
Academic English is very different from ordinary English and I think it’s quite ok for a non-native speaker to have help in the editing of their thesis or paper, as long as…that the people actually understand what mistakes they’ve made and how to correct them. As he is working with the students over a period of time, they start to learn how to write and structure their thesis properly. He does not write it for them. JY
This sounds like a great idea. And here is the response of  our esteemed SW:

I’m glad someone finally “gets it”, sort of. If the editing boils down to types, misspellings, and common usage mistakes that is one thing. Editing for a polished product which would give the reader the impression that the author’s English skills are considerably better than they are is just dishonest. I have never heard of a graduate student who paid someone to edit their work – often though a friend will read it through for obvious glitches and the advisor should be there from the beginning as an advisor, but not as an editor.

Again, I checked back to the original post. Where does it say that this (typos, misspelling, usage) is not the point of the “upgrading”?

The thread ended more or less with this noteworthy post. (Left exactly as written.)

Perhaps more proficient writing expertise can be expected of  American college students/grads because they are required to complet writing and lit courses at advanced levels, in addition to English being their language #1. An Israeli  goes to Univesity and trains specifically and intensely to become an expert in a given field…zehu (ed.That’s it). And the results are, as we know , that some of the most advanced developments worldwide in science and technology, medicine etc etc, come from Israel. So perchance these achievers can be given a slight break when it comne the the issue of English writing proficiency?

And with that, I went back and finished my work.
Amazingly, no one actually gave definite practical advice to poor ES, who, after all, just wanted to know what to charge for his work. And I will give him the definitive answer: check out the ITA rates for editors. The link can be found here.

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